What I read in 2012

12/14 Felix Gilman, The Rise of Ransom City

This is the sequel to The Half-Made World, and the conclusion of the story. If you've read and liked The Half-Made World, you should read this too.

I found the books stunningly original — a sort of reimaging of the mythology of the American West, told as a mixture of fantasy and steampunk and horror and set in a world that's familiar in some thematic ways but strange in history and geography. Some metaphors are literalized: the great conflict is between the Line and the Gun, both of which are sinister powers beyond human scale or comprehension.

12/8 Hannu Rajaniemi, The Fractal Prince

Sequel to The Quantum Thief, and similar in the way it expands one's sense of the possible. (Perhaps beyond the breaking point!) It's a difficult book to read and understand, partly just because of the sheer richness and strangeness of the setting, with all of the unfamiliar terms and concepts and history, partly because segments from multiple storylines are interwoven and you're not always told what order things happen in, partly because the characters withhold information from each other and from the reader, and partly because it's not always obvious who a given character is or what an answer to that question would look like. None of this is gratuitous. This is a world where personal identity means something very different than in our world.

12/1 Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Vile Village

Very Fancy Doilies? Village of Fowl Devotees?

The series takes some interesting twists in this book; the main characters are not in the same place at the end as they were at the beginning. This is also the book where it becomes even clearer that “Lemony Snicket” is not just a pen name for Daniel Handler, but also a character in the story.

11/25 Lois Bujold, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Bujold fans will of course know that this is the latest Vorkosigan book — sort of. As the title suggests, Miles is not the main character of this book. He barely appears, in fact.

I liked this book a lot. Cryoburn was a minor Vorkosigan book (except for the last 2–3 pages); this one is much more memorable. The change in perspective, perhaps, made it seem more fresh. Ivan is recognizably the same character as in the earlier books, but he looks different from the inside. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is also one of the funniest books in the series. Like A Civil Campaign, it's a romantic comedy more than anything else.

11/24 Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

This is a novel, not a work of theology. It says that right there on the cover: “a work of fiction.” The 36 arguments in question are the appendix of a best-selling book on the psychology of religion, written by the novel's main character, in which he presents and refutes all of the standard arguments for theism and a few of the less common ones. (The appendix to the fictional book The Varieties of Religious Illusion is reproduced as the appendix of this book.)

Not to say that philosophical and spiritual issues are unimportant to this book! Goldstein's characters are intellectuals, as is the author (she has a Ph.D. in philosophy), and ideas matter to them. Academic careerism matters to them too, but it's not the main focus.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God is structurally complicated, interweaving three major timelines and including flashbacks to a few minor ones. Oddly enough, the most significant spiritual struggle, the most momentous decision, does not directly involve the main character. A different choice of viewpoint could have made this a very different novel, perhaps more like a Chaim Potok novel.

11/11 G. J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914–1918

The leadership of the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted a war — not the war they got, which destroyed their country, but a quick punitive war against what they saw as an overly aggressive Kingdom of Serbia. The Serbian government probably also wanted a war — not against the Hapsburg Empire necessarily, which, although declining, was still a great power, but perhaps something more like a Third Balkan War. The other major powers probably didn't. (In late July the tsar and the kaiser were still exchanging telegrams, in English, signed “Nicky” and “your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin, Willy.”) The first part of this book is a day by day explanation, largely sympathetic to the decision makers on all sides, of how the diplomatic blunders accumulated and how, at each stage, given the incomplete information that any one person had at any one time, it seemed reasonable to make decisions that systematically expanded the scope of the crisis until it turned into a war that wrecked Europe.

A World Undone is a relatively short introduction to World War I (one volume, 800 pages), written for a general audience. It's mostly chronological and it covers the entire war, interleaving events on the different fronts. A book for specialists might easily spend 800 pages or more on a single major battle! And since this is a book for nonspecialists, who probably aren't familiar with the fine points of early 20th century politics or long-vanished dynasties, roughly every other chapter steps away from the immediate chronological narrative to explain the background of those events, with chapter titles like “Background: London in 1914” and “Background: the Junkers” and “Background: Enter the Tiger.”

10/24 Terry Pratchett, Jingo

One of the Watch novels. Also a war novel. Sir Samuel Vimes is of course a policeman, not a soldier, but a war can be a crime.

10/20 David Sawyer McFarland, CSS: The Missing Manual

It's hard for me not to regard CSS with horror. It interacts with HTML in complicated and non-orthogonal ways. It has a syntax utterly unlike HTML, and it has a few sublanguages thrown in for good measure with different syntaxes of their own. Its layout model is a weird mix of extremely detailed control of some aspects and complete holes in others, compared to the layout model of, say, TeX. Any book on CSS, like this one, has to spend half the space explaining what doesn't work on which browsers and how to work around those problems. The overall feel is not so much an API that was designed but an API that just happened. (And I imagine that really is the history. By the time anyone started anything like design, they were probably overconstrained by legacy systems.) But on the other hand: it works, more or less. If you understand CSS well you can do some cool things with it, ones that wouldn't be practical any other way.

10/20 Iain M. Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata

The latest Culture book. The title is surprisingly literal: it refers to T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalog number MW 1211, commonly referred to as “The Hydrogen Sonata.”

The prevous Culture novel, Surface Detail, is largely about simulated worlds, including the speculation that we might be living in a simulation too good to be distinguished from reality. The odd thing is that this notion also appeared as a sort of throwaway idea in The Hydrogen Sonata, where it isn't integral to the rest of the book, and also in one of Banks's other recent books, The Algebraist. It also shows up in one of Ken Macleod's recent books. I guess this is what Scottish science fiction writers are talking about at the pub these days!

10/18 Noel Mostert, The Line Upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793–1815

“Line,” that is, as in line of battle, the naval warfare tactic that evolved in the 17th century and that became orthodoxy by the 18th. And “The Great War” is also a literal title: that's the name that was used at the time for the 22 years of European warfare at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, and the name that was used for it for a long time after. (Repurposed for another war a century later.) Today we're more likely to call it “the Napoleonic wars,” but the wars and alliances were very complicated and in some cases had nothing to do with Napoleon. The Great War also has a pretty good claim to be described as the first world war; there was serious fighting everywhere in Europe, from Spain to Russia and from Scandinavia to the Balkans, and in the Middle East, in Egypt and in what's now Turkey and Israel, and in North and South America, and in South Africa, and in the Indian Ocean, and in other places.

This is a book about the naval aspect of the war, primarily from the British point of view. The climax is of course Trafalgar, and Nelson is of course the hero. The war still continued after Trafalgar for another decade. There were no more great fleet actions, but sea power continued to be important.

One of the things I learned from this book is that the War of 1812 was an even stupider war than I had realized.

10/10 Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Ersatz Elevator

In which we meet the two Quagmire triplets again, and hear a little more about the secrets of V.F.D., and discover which things are In and which are Out. The climax of this book is at the In Auction. One of the children, reading the auction catalog, explains it to the others: “Each of the items for the auction is called a lot, and the catalog lists each lot with a description and a guess at what the highest bid may be. I've read up to Lot #49, which is a valuable postage stamp.”

9/16 John C. Wright, Count to a Trillion

Some of the premises of this story were interesting, and the scope was grand enough for space opera, but ultimately I didn't like it much. I found all of the characters, including the ones I think we were supposed to sympathize with, completely unlikable.

9/14 Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, an untenured professor at an undistinguished liberal arts college, seems at first like a character who might appear in a novel by Bellow or Amis, but he's unmistakably Nabokovian.

It's hard to know what to make of this book structurally. It's mostly told in the third person — apparently, at least at first, omniscient third person. But we start to realize that there is an actual narrator with a presence of his own, a fellow Russian émigré, who occasionally makes first person comments; there are signs that the narrator's knowledge is limited, that he is unreliable. (Did Nabokov ever write a reliable narrator?) He's never named, nor is it ever explicit how he knows what he does, if he does. Perhaps the narrator is Nabokov himself, or at least some kind of alter ego of his. A minor character does, in passing, mention Vladimir Vladimirovich the lepidopterist.

9/8 Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture

An exploration of the princess-industrial complex. Did you know that, as of 2009, the Disney Princess is a $4 billion a year business? (And I literally mean just Disney Princess; that doesn't count Barbie, or American Girl, or anything similar.) Even more interesting, did you know that Disney Princess, as a category and a marketing theme, is extremely recent? Some of what are now called Princess movies are many decades old, of course, but it wasn't until 2000 that someone in Disney marketing thought to group them together as a genre and sell Princess as a concept, as opposed to Snow White or Bambi or some other movie taken on its own.

The book is a little rambly. It isn't just about princesses; each chapter deals with some different aspect of pop culture as it pertains to little girls. The history is interesting. Gender role differentiation has always existed to one extent or another, but the details vary a lot in time and place. Today the details involve mass electronic communication and modern marketing. There's a temptation to think of these things as eternal and changeless, but that's an illusion. Gender in childhood pop culture doesn't look like it did when I was a kid.

I'm not quite as skeptical of these things as the author of this book is, but I think I'm glad my daughter is into fairies instead of princesses.

9/3 Diana Wynne Jones, Cart and Cwidder

Book 1 of the Dalemark Quartet. I think a cwidder is something like a lute.

9/1 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

“I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

8/27 Charles E. Lindblom, The Market System: What It Is, How It Works, and What To Make of It

This book distinguishes between markets — buying and selling, which have existed for as long as history — from the market system: a system where market transactions are the primary mechanism for societywide coordination of human activities. (Note that this is human activities not economic activities. “Think society, not economy,” the author exhorts us. It's harder to see how the market system functions as a system of societal coordination if you think about just one aspect of human behavior.) The market system is much newer than markets. It's hard to give a precise date for its origin but a pretty good rough answer is that the earliest societies with market systems were in the late 18th century: not coincidentally, just the time when Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. Smith was writing about something new.

Is the market system efficient? A trickier question than one might think! You can tie yourself in knots trying to sort out to what extent F=mA is a substantive statement and to what extent it's a definition, and so with market efficiency. You can define efficiency as whatever results a market system yields, but that's not very interesting. A more interesting characterization of efficiency in general is that it's a ratio of some output to some input (meaning there can be many forms of efficiency depending on which inputs and outputs you examine.) The author suggests that in this case we should think of it as a ratio of valued output to valued input, which makes sense, and which removes the danger of circularity, but which also makes clear that this is an incredibly broad question that we can't think about without thinking about values.

The author points out early on that the market system is so pervasive that it's hard for us to understand or even imagine alternative possibilities. Are there any? The author discusses that question in the last chapter and doesn't really come up with any; he thinks about societies that use market mechanisms with more central control, but doesn't even speculate about the possibility of a society that lacks both a market system and a central controller. Ultimately that seems to me a failure of imagination, one that seems especially glaring after I've just read a Ken MacLeod book. Maybe that sort of question is better suited to science fiction writers than to economists or political scientists. The good ones understand that, even if we can't say what the future will be like, it probably won't be just like the present.

8/25 Ken MacLeod, The Restoration Game

“I know personally that the entire Soviet system is based on a gigantic lie — not a lie about Lenin, or Stalin, or the production statistics, but something far more fundamental than that,” says a renegade KGB officer. “Materialism. I know — I know that there is, if not a God, then an order of things higher than the order the scientists talk about. Don't ask me how I know.” In the context of the book he is of course correct, and I'm not giving anything away by saying so. Very early on, within the first few pages, we get a pretty clear indication of what that higher order of things might be. Including that prologue was an interesting authorial choice; it would have been a very different book without it.

“Restoration” and “game” have several meanings in this book, some that are immediately obvious and others that become clear later.

8/18 Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso), Metamorphoses (tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

A compendium of Greek and Roman mythology. It's loosely organized, very roughly chronological, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the then-present day and the glorification of Rome and Augustus, becoming more chronological toward the end. As the title suggests, the poem emphasizes those aspects of mythology that involve changes of form. Toward the end Ovid has Pythagoras give a long speech explaining that “in all this world, no thing can keep its form. For all things flow; all things are born to change their shapes,” including people and the gods and also the world itself and its most fundamental constituents.

As Ovid predicted in his boastful but accurate epilogue:

  • But, with the better part of me, I'll gain
  • a place that's higher than the stars: my name,
  • indelible, eternal, will remain.
  • And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
  • in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
  • will be on people's lips; and through all time —
  • if poets' prophecies are ever right —
  • my name and fame are sure: I shall have life.
  • 7/22 Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

    Under what circumstances do people decide to cheat? If you're a Chicago School economist, there's a simple answer: people respond to incentives, so a rational actor will assess the benefits of cheating and compare them to the consequences of getting caught multiplied by the probability of detection. If you're a behavioral economist, on the other hand, you'll perform experiments on psychology undergrads and study which factors empirically influence the decision. Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist.

    The results in this book are complicated and sometimes surprising, but it's mostly oriented around a pretty simple hypothesis. Most people will cheat in many circumstances, but only a little bit; most people want to think of themselves as honest and decent, so they'll limit themselves to something they can rationalize away. How much can you rationalize? That depends, and that's what most of the experiments are about.

    The author suggests, in the preface, that one of the goals of this research is to “apply this improved understanding to curb dishonesty.” Mostly a noble goal, but it does have a sinister aspect that the author doesn't discuss. I'm sure there are some people who think about crime and dishonesty purely as an expected cost/benefit analysis. You can call those people rational homo economicus or you can call them sociopaths; either way, I don't think they're common but I do think they exist. And it occurs to me that if we're talking about structuring an environment to reduce dishonesty, we're not talking about symmetrical relationships. The people who will be doing this are, by definition, those who have the power to design an organization's structure. Are people with that kind of power more or less likely to be the kinds of people who view honesty in instrumental terms? Asymmetrical honesty has the potential to be a weapon.

    7/8 Charlie Stross, The Apocalypse Codex

    The latest Laundry novel, this time focusing on religion. (Largely of the American televangelist variety.) “As you doubtless know if you're reading this memoir, there is One True Religion; but I wouldn't want you to get the idea that I was a follower of N'Yar lath-Hotep, or The Sleeper, or any of their nightmarish ilk. My prayers are secular, humanist, and probably futile. It's one of my character flaws; I was a lot happier when I was an atheist.”

    Parts of this book read like a Modesty Blaise novel, largely because parts of this book are a Modesty Blaise novel. Two of the characters are very obviously Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin under different names, with at least one groan-worthy pun to underscore the reference.

    6/30 James S. A. Corey (a.k.a. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), Caliban's War

    Sequel to Leviathan Wakes. More solar system scale space opera, more of the inexplicable, more grotesquerie, more corporate sociopathy, more of what may or may not be transcendence.

    A common complaint is that universal communication makes it too hard to write thrillers. That really isn't true. This book is structured as a thriller — short chapters, rapid cuts between many different viewpoints, and so on. It's plot driven, and much of the plot depends on some character not knowing things that other characters know. Communication is difficult in one sense (the scale of the story means that any two characters might be as much as 45 light-minutes apart), but that's not really the main issue. You don't need an artificial technological reason why it's impossible for two characters to talk to each other; as I imagine all romance writers know, all you need is for them not to realize that they need to talk to each other.

    6/26 Anthony Hope, Rupert of Hentzau

    Sequel to Prisoner of Zenda. The title is a little misleading, since Rupert isn't the main character, but of course the author didn't want to let such a great villain go to waste.

    Interesting book structurally. Very early on it's pretty obvious how the book is going to end (intentionally so, mind you; I'm not talking about clumsy writing), and the only question is exactly how it'll get there.

    6/23 Michelle Bigley, Kauai: A Complete Guide

    I read it on the plane.

    6/23 Matthew MacDonald, HTML5: The Missing Manual

    A whirlwind tour of new HTML features.

    6/23 Lois Bujold, "Winterfair Gifts"

    Miles's wedding, although that's not really what the story is about.

    6/22 Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

    Not Mary Roach's funniest book (that would still be Stiff), but I enjoyed it a lot — partly because it was genuinely informative and partly because it's about a subject that's just inherently interesting: what do we know about sending humans into space, and what are some of the things we've done to learn about it? There are the psychological studies about what happens when a small group is isolated for a long time; the attempts to understand and prevent bone loss in 0G (a serious problem); the bizarre history of space food; the crash tests with cadavers; the early chimpanzee flights; the messy, and suprisingly interesting, problems of sweat and excretion. (The receptors that tell us we need to pee work differently in 0G.) We know a lot about some of the ways that humans respond to free fall and very little about others; we don't know, for example, whether we, or any other mammal, can get pregnant in space.

    This book is backed up by a lot of real research; it's also a fun and breezy read, paying proper attention to the nutty side of human spaceflight research. And as in the author's other books, the digressions are sometimes the most fun part. Frank Borman, it turns out, was “sick as a dog all the way to the moon.” So naturally she needs to put in a long footnote, beginning “And how sick is that?,” exploring the science of canine motion sickness.

    6/17 Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

    I expected this book to be about the limits of memory and perception — the famous Challenger study, for example, or the Dunning-Kruger study about the (lack of) correlation between ability and perceived ability. It does include such things, but just as the starting point.

    The author is a philosophically minded neurologist, and the book is largely about the neurophysiology both of actual knowledge and of the sensation of knowing something. Much of the book is an extended argument that those two things are very different and not always closely related. The author's own summary of the book, from the preface: “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice not even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanism that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Embedded in there is an argument that, given what we now know about how the brain works, certainty just isn't something we can reasonably expect; even apparently abstract ideas are rooted in the specifics of the human perceptual system. (Shades of Kant! And yes, the author does make that connection.)

    If you're a science fiction reader, and if you enjoyed Blindsight, then you'll probably enjoy this book too.

    6/13 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

    Is this the first Shakespeare play I ever saw or read? Too long ago for me to remember, but it seems likely. It's certainly Alice's first — she saw an abbreviated version at her elementary school a couple weeks ago. She's been reading the “Rainbow Magic” fairy books, in which the fairy king and queen are named Oberon and Titania, so it's good that she's seen a better story with those names!

    This is the first time I've reread the play in a long time. I've seen and listened to Britten's operatic version much more recently, though, and I found that I now associate several passages very strongly with Britten's music. I do still love the play, especially the quiet Act IV.

    6/10 Agatha Christie, The Mystery of the Blue Train

    6/8 John Scalzi, Redshirts

    You can guess a lot about this book just from the title, and even more from the cover. Yes, it's at least in part a send-up of bad TV science fiction. Yes, it has a fair amount of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in outer space. It gets a little weirder than you'd think from that description, though. It's a story about stories, asking what fiction should do.

    The subtitle is “A Novel with Three Codas,” which is correct. The novel itself is quite short. The three codas at the end don't continue the main story; they explore different characters, and make the themes of the book more explicit.

    6/2 Franny Billingsley, Chime

    I heard the author read from this book at WisCon. She began at the beginning:

    I've confessed to everything, and I'd like to be hanged.

    Now, if you please.

    I don't mean to be difficult, but I can't bear to tell my story. I can't relive those memories—the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

    How can you possibly think me innocent? Don't let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.

    Doesn't that make you want to read the rest of the book?

    5/29 Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire

    Winner of the 2011 Tiptree Award. It's partly about struggles with racism and sexual violence, partly about the early 20th century theater and entertainment, partly about magic, partly a love story.

    5/6 Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

    As one would expect from The Rachel Maddow Show, this book is stylistically breezy, funny in parts, and also quite serious and intelligent. The drift of the title is partly the way the US military and the rest of the US have drifted apart, but, even more, the drift in a fundamental aspect of the US political system. We've gone from a system where going to war was deliberately cumbersome and painful to one where it's easy, painless, and, to most of the country, almost invisible. It's not just our constitutional structures; there used to be a whole lot of formal and informal constraints on warmaking that have now been dismantled.

    If there's one thing clear about the original intent of the people who wrote the US Constitution, it's that they were worried that war would centralize power in the Executive, they were suspicious of standing armies, and they deliberately built in constraints. As Madison wrote: “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of government most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” Good idea.

    5/1 Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

    The last book of the Hunger Games trilogy, which in some ways ends in just the way you would expect a trilogy with this general structure to end.

    4/29 Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

    Is it even more obvious in this book than in The Hunger Games that when you read “the Capitol” you're supposed to think “Rome,” or did I just notice it more?

    4/28 Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda

    We saw the movie version recently, so I wanted to reread the book it was based on. It's a great adventure story, and an influential one. Its plot was the direct inspiration for at least two other books I've read and probably countless that I haven't. It was also the less direct inspiration of a whole genre: published in 1894, it was the original Ruritanian romance.

    4/26 Matt Harrison, Treading on Python: Volume 1: Foundations of Python

    As the title promises, it's an introduction to Python programming. I'm not completely sure the book knew what it wanted to be, though, or who its audience was. Is it for people who have never programmed before, or for experienced programmers who are learning a new language?

    4/25 Luiz André Barroso and Urs Hölzle, The Datacenter as a Computer: An Introduction to the Design of Warehouse-Scale Machines

    This is the best public information I know of describing what Google-scale computation is like. If you're interested in large scale programming, you should read this.

    4/22 Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

    Yes, there's a good reason this is the YA series that everyone is talking about now. (Like others, though, I'm not convinced that either the economy or the political system could function as written.)

    4/19 Joan Slonczewski, The Highest Frontier

    The first sentence of this book gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. “The space lift rose from the Pacific, climbing the cords of anthrax bacteria.” This is a science fiction book set in the early 22nd century, mostly on a space station, and a lot of it is centered around biology. (Unsurprising, considering that the author is a biology professor.) Within the first paragraph we also learn that this is a college story — the main character is heading into orbit to attend Frontera College. Within a page we start seeing the first hints that this is a world where climate change and other ecological threats have affected everything. Within the first chapter we learn that most of the characters belong to the ultra-elites; the main character is descended from three US presidents. At first it seems tedious meeting one trillionaire or trust fund heir after another, and you wonder whether there are any normal people in this world, but that's part of the point.

    22nd century politics in this book is even more inane than the politics in our world. First Lady debates are now routine; elections can be swung by cookies; instead of old-fashioned creationists, one of the two major US parties literally denies the existence of most of the universe, insisting that the stars are just lights on the biblical Firmament. The contrast between the idiotic politics and the serious challenges the country has to deal with is simultaneously funny and horrifying.

    4/8 Dylan Meconis, Bite Me! (A Vampire Farce)

    Last year at WisCon, a friend recommended this graphic novel for anyone who likes vampires or the French Revolution. I like both, so how could I resist? And between bloodsucking aristocrats and bloodthirsty Jacobin terrorists, it seems like a pretty natural combination. “Don't think of it as a bloody massacre. Think of it as a sort of… free buffet.”

    I read this in book form, but it started out as a web comic and you can read the whole thing for free online.

    4/3 Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

    “Within the chapters that make up this dreadful story, the children will face snapping crabs, strict punishments, dripping fungus, comprehensive exams, violin recitals, S.O.R.E., and the metric system.”

    3/30 David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

    Yes, five thousand years. Debt, money, institutionalized slavery, religious bureaucracy, taxation, commercial markets, standing armies, and written legal codes with precisely specified punishments, all seem to date from about the same time. (Our best records are from ancient Mesopotamia.) All of those institutions may have evolved together.

    I've seen people say that this book is an anarchist's take on money. True, but the real essence, it seems to me, is that it's an anthropologist's take on money. The book's discussion of how money came to be, and the different things money has meant in diferent eras, is rooted in the specifics of individual cultures, including ones that don't have money or that have what Graeber calls “social currency,” which isn't used for day-to-day transactions but only for special purposes like arranging marriages.

    Societies that don't have money tend not to have barter either, at least in the sense of an exchange of items of equal values. How do their economies function, then? Well, one value of an anthropologist's account is that it makes you wonder whether that's a meaningful question. “Political œconomy,” later renamed economics, was a field of study that didn't emerge until the 18th century. One of the innovations of this field was the idea that there was such a thing as an economy to study — that you could abstract out one aspect of how people behave in a society, like transactions or distribution of resources, and study it in isolation from other aspects of how people behave. That's not always a good assumption. (And in times and places where it is a good assumption, maybe that's at least in part because, with economics as part of our cultural heritage, we've made it so.)

    This is a “big picture” history book, covering thousands of years and much of the world. Graeber divides up his history of the world into the First Agrarian Empires, the Axial Age, the Middle Ages, the Age of Great Capitalist Empires, and the present era, The Beginning of Something Yet to Be Determined, which he dates from the second half of the 20th century. In a book with a scope like that you're bound to learn lots of fascinating tidbits (the way that meat is distributed after an Inuit hunting expedition; the fact that coinage was invented relatively recently, long after the invention of money, and seems to have been independently invented three times) and you're also bound to come across some parts that seem like a stretch or an oversimplification.

    “What I have been trying to do in this book is not so much to propose a vision of what, precisely, the next age will be like, but to throw open perspectives, enlarge our sense of possibilities.” Things have been different, and things can be different.

    3/17 Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family

    Justice, as explored by political philosophers going back at least to Plato, is a question about a society as a whole; it's about how individuals come together in some sort of public realm. But this elides a crucial question: just who are those individuals? Most works have been silent about this, tacitly assuming “that the ‘individual’ who is the basic subject of the theories is the male head of a patriarchal household.” For ancients like Aristotle that probably was an explicit assumption, and women simply weren't included in his idea of justice. For more modern philosphers it's more likely a question of laziness, sometimes helped by falsely gender neutral language that makes it easier for them to forget to ask exactly who they're talking about.

    The basic argument of this book is simple: if you're writing about human societies, especially ones that are supposed to resemble our world in any way, you can't forget about the facts that humans come in two sexes and that adults were once children. (If writers “take mature, independent human beings as the subjects of their theories without any mention of how they got to be that way,” then there are some big unwritten assumptions that ought to be made explicit.) If you're analyzing the justice of the basic institutions of society, you can't leave the institution of the family out of your discussion. You can't assume that families are necessarily just, and you can't assume that families are necessarily outside the scope of justice.

    This may seem like it's nothing more than a small correction to the usual theories of justice, but it's not. You have to do more than take a work from the past, add sex equality, and stir. (That's why it's misleading to use gender neutral language without thinking through what you're really saying about gender.)

    Some theories simply can't survive contact with “the radical notion that women are people.” Aristotle's concept of the good life only applies to free male citizens; it doesn't make sense for someone who isn't supported by women and slaves. Nozick's version of libertarianism, which includes the idea that people can be owned (not necessarily by themselves), and which has rules to determine who is the rightful owner of something previously unowned, collapses into incoherence once you ask who the rightful owner of a newborn is. To a lesser extent that's also true of Rawls and Walzer. Okin has a lot of respect for both of those writers, and thinks that both Rawls's “original position” and Walzer's notion of “separate spheres” are useful ways of analyzing these questions — but if you ask the questions they left out, and if you take the implications of those theories seriously, they become considerably more radical. The main question, ultimately, is: “Can justice co-exist with gender?”

    3/10 Bruce Schneier, Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

    We often forget it, but most people are trustworthy most of the time. We interact with dozens or hundreds of strangers every day and indirectly rely on thousands or millions more, almost always without any problems.

    Bruce Schneier is an expert on cryptography and other aspects of computer security. This book is about a broader topic than security, though: under what circumstances do people cooperate with societal norms and under what circumstances do people defect (the term comes from game theory), or work against societal norms? It's a very general question, and to a large extent a value neutral one: not all societal norms are good, and not all societies are good. Criminal organizations and oppressive governments are societies with their own norms. And, of course, all of us belong to multiple societies. If your employer is breaking the law then cooperating in your role as a citizen is defecting in your role as an employee, and vice versa.

    This book is primarily about a framework for thinking about these question: characterizing the various reasons people have for defecting and the different pressures for cooperation. The book suggests a fourfold classification for the latter: moral pressure, reputational pressure, institutional structures, and security systems. Security is just one piece of the puzzle. Implicitly, the argument is that you can't understand security if it's the only piece you think about.

    3/3 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm

    In which our hero must deal with two potential suitors, a swarm of small clanks, a hostile besieging army, a conspiracy, an imposter, her damaged and insane ancestral castle, and Hogfarb's Resplendent Immolation.

    2/28 Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief

    A first novel, which I picked up largely because Charlie Stross was enthusiastic about it. It's an interesting mixture! It's a story with a partly but not entirely posthuman setting; it's also partly a story about memory, with a number of references to Proust. Pretty obviously the first book in a series.

    2/26 George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

    This is the first time I've read The Mill on the Floss, and the first time I've read any George Eliot in years. I'd remembered what a great prose stylist she was, but I'd forgotten her rather barbed wit. “I know it is difficult for people in these instructed times to believe in uncle Pullet's ignorance, but let them reflect on the remarkable results of a great natural faculty under favoring circumstances.”

    Even in the lighthearted early parts of the book there's a faint undercurrent of doom, which gradually gets stronger. Eventually the book becomes a tragedy about someone whose life has always involved renunciation, who has never had the prospect of happiness unmixed with pain, and who finds herself making a very difficult moral decision. That part feels very personal. George Eliot must have known about struggles like her character's from first hand. (Not always making the same choice.)

    Tragedies aren't always indictments, and don't always come with messages, but some do. One message you could reasonably take from The Mill on the Floss is what George Orwell says is the central point of George Eliot's contemporary Charles Dickens: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” It's also hard not to see this book more specifically as a feminist indictment; the self-satisfied clergyman, for example, who says that girls can't learn Euclid, because they're naturally “quick and shallow” despite some “superficial cleverness,” is infuriating, and is clearly meant to be. The word “feminist” seems to have been coined a few years after George Eliot's death, but given her life and politics I don't think it's an ahistorical reading.

    2/1 Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill

    Book 4 of the series.

    “‘Optimist’ is a word which here refers to a person, such as Phil, who thinks hopeful and pleasant thoughts about nearly everything. For instance, if an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say, in a pleasant and hopeful voice, ‘Well, this isn't too bad. I don't have my left arm anymore, but at least nobody will ever ask me whether I am right-handed or left-handed,’ but most of us would say something more along the lines of ‘Aaaaah! My arm! My arm!’”

    1/30 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Boneyards

    Sequel to Diving Into the Wreck and City of Ruins, both of which I first encountered as novellas in Asimov's. I don't know whether part of this one was published separately too; I'm almost a year behind on my Asimov's.

    1/28 Reginald Hill, Arms and the Women

    This is the first of Hill's books that I've read. (Alas, I was reminded of him by reading his obituary.) I chose it mostly at random. It's part of his best known series: the Dalziel/Pascoe books, centered on a couple of Mid-Yorkshire police detectives. I liked it, and I'll have to read more, probably this time paying a little bit of attention to the proper order.

    The title is, of course, both a simple literal description of some of the book's plot elements and also a reference to the Aeneid. Reminds me that I haven't reread the Aeneid in quite a long time.

    1/22 Frederick P. Brooks, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist

    In the mid 60s, Fred Brooks was the project manager and one of the lead designers for IBM's System/360. It was a huge and important project (descendents of that architecture are still sold), and Brooks's The Mythical Man-Month, first published in 1975 and inspired by his experiences at IBM, is one of the classic pieces of writing about the software engineering process.

    The Design of Design also includes stories about, and lessons from, System/360. It attempts to be more general, though: it's about the design process itself, whether designing a computer, or a kitchen remodel, or a book. Is there such a thing as “design” at that level of generality, such that you can talk about a design process that cuts across fields? What makes a great designer, and how can you recognize one, or become one?

    1/15 James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes

    Space opera, set in a world where there are long established colonies in much of the solar system (Mars, Luna, the Belt, even as far out as the moons of Saturn), but no interstellar travel. As is often true of space opera, it's a story where the world changes fundamentally, and where events turn out to be more sinister and more important than they first appear. It's the first book of a trilogy, but it still feels like a complete story.

    1/14 Fumi Yoshinaga, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers (vol. 3) (tr. Akemi Wegmüller)

    Continuing the story that began in volume 2, this is a graphic novel about a time of transition: an alternative version of Tokugawa era Japan that was forced to change its ways drastically when a plague killed (and continues to kill) 80% of the men in the country. This book is set in the days of the first female Shogun, in the days when it seemed to many people that the country would soon fall into ruin. We know from reading volume 1, however, that within a few decades there's stability again, everyone takes it for granted that merchants and samurai and farmers and feudal lords are all women, and nobody remembers that gender roles were ever different.

    1/9 Andrew Tobias, The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need

    I read an earlier edition of this book a few years ago. This is the 2011 edition. It's still recognizably the same book. The list of useful money saving techniques has been updated to include new discount Web sites, and the discussion of index funds has been updated to include equal weighted and fundamentally weighted funds. It's an interesting point — it's not clear if there's any good reason, other than custom, to use weighting by market capitalization.

    1/5 Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution (tr. R. R. Palmer)

    Or, in the original title, Quatre-vingt-neuf, or Eighty Nine. Fair enough. As is suggested by the title the translator chose, this book is mostly about the early phase of the Revolution.

    My copy says that it's the “Bicentennial Edition,” which mainly means it has a new translator's preface discussing the history of the book itself. Lefebvre originally published it in 1939, in honor of the sesquicentennial. The counterrevolutionary Vichy regime soon came to power and suppressed the book; fascists, unsurprisingly, had little sympathy for a celebration of the Rights of Man. The English translation was published in 1947, and, according to the translator, the book was better known in the English speaking countries than in France.

    This particular book may not have been all that well known in France, but Lefebvre himself was one of the most eminent experts on the French Revolution, and this book expresses the traditional 20th century French interpretation of the Revolution. (Traditional, as I understand it, in large part because of Lefebvre's work.) There are of course revisionist accounts, but Lefebvre's account is the one they're challenging.

    It's an interpretation that's clearly inspired by Marxism. In its simplest form: during the 18th century a new class, the bourgeoisie, became economically important but its political power lagged behind. In the Revolution, the bourgeoisie became politically as well as economically dominant. But of course Lefebvre didn't think it was that simple. If he did, then he wouldn't have bothered devoting his life to understanding the Revolution; he would have just told us to reread Marx. The growing importance of the bourgeoisie was true everywhere, but only France had a French Revolution. Contingent and specific facts matter: France's fiscal crisis caused by military spending and insufficient taxation of the privileged, the institutional role of the ancien régime parlements, decisions taken by people like Necker and Louis XVI and the duc d'Orléans and the marquis de La Fayette, even idiocy like the affair of the diamond necklace.

    A more complete version of the thesis of this book: not just the bourgeoisie, but also the aristocracy, the common populace of cities, and the peasantry, all wanted an end to the ancien régime, each for reasons of their own. The Revolution began when the aristocracy used the fiscal crisis to try to regain some of the power that the nobles had lost to the central monarchy; if it hadn't been for the parlements there would have been no Estates-General, no Tennis Court Oath, no National Assembly. But it didn't end there. “After having paralyzed the royal power which upheld its own social preeminence, the aristocracy opened the way to the bourgeois revolution, then to the popular revolution in the cities and finally to the revolution of the peasants — and found itself buried under the ruins of the Old Regime.”

    Matt Austern